Well, it sure isn’t every birthday I’m 4,000 miles away from my birthplace. Don’t worry, I managed to treat myself despite the distance. From stomping around the homelands of my ancestors to walking in the steps of Churchill, I think I’ve done a decent job of ringing in my twentieth year here on Earth.
SATURDAY, LONDON Well it looks like I somehow managed to become a year older and get out of my awkward teenage years all in one day. I decided to celebrate the only way I knew how, by grabbing a celebratory Cuban cigar and a rack of ribs. For the cigar, I decided today was a day for only the best so I headed out to Green Park to James J. Fox & Robert Lewis, the store that supplied Churchill, the Queen Mum, and Napoleon III. I met Montana there and we bought two Cubans (it’s nice living in an embargo free country) and headed up to their smoking lounge. Due to their reputation, they are one of the only places in Britain where you’re still allowed to smoke inside. It’s just like what you would think of an old smoking lounge, men of all ages sitting around puffing away in a smoke-filled room surrounded by deep leather chairs and dark wood-paneled walls and furniture. I was in heaven. We sat and talked for an hour or two and met several interesting people as well. We swapped stories of college and transatlantic lives. I even got a bit of career advice too from some of the people I met.
After finishing up we headed over to Brixton to a large market where I heard there was a pretty good BBQ joint. The BBQ was pretty spot on, although the portions were lacking in my southern BBQ purist perspective. It was defiantly a trendy little part of town. I don’t think I saw a single person over the age of thirty the whole time we were down there. All in all, it was a pretty good way to celebrate 20 years of life. I went to bed a pretty happy 20 something.
THURSDAY, EDINBURGH Another early start to catch our flight. Turned out it wasn’t necessary thanks to Ryanair’s ability to consistently run behind schedule. It was a beautiful day, clear skies and all. So being stuck inside the airport wasn’t the way I really wanted to spend my one cloudless day.
LONDON Finally made it into London a few hours behind schedule. Dropped off my bags and headed to the Library to turn in some books. I did a final edit on my paper and then submitted it. I went out to dinner with Sydney before she left the country for the States. Word to the wise, take paper classes. You’ll save quite a bit of money.
WEDNESDAY, SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS Had another wildly early start to the day. We left the hostel as the sun was rising to meet up with a tour company that was headed into the highlands. The first stop on our tour was a place of great pride in Scotland – a whiskey distillery. The tour was interesting and it was fun to see how they make single malt scotch. We ate a surprisingly really good breakfast in the distillery’s café before hitting the road again. By mid-day, we had driven through snowstorms, rain, and even stopped to feed some hairy cows. As we reached one of the highest points in the United Kingdom we pulled over to an overlook. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Words cannot describe the feelings I had looking out over the valley and the snowcapped mountains that surrounded me. The sky had cleared and revealed even greater beauty. I felt a feeling I’ve only had in two other places – the Appalachian Mountains and Chapel Hill. I felt like I was home, where I belonged.
The views for the rest of the drive were equally stunning. Finally, by the afternoon we had reached our final destination. Loch Ness. We took an hour-long boat ride out onto the Loch and sat and just admired the stunning beauty of the lake and the mountains around it. Unfortunately, I didn’t see Nessie. Apparently, that requires quite a bit of scotch. After walking around the village for a while it was time to head back. We all piled onto the bus and rode for a while. We stopped at a small highland village and got some ice cream because it was after all “Scottish Summer.” We got back around nine and we headed back to the hostel and fell out pretty fast.
TUESDAY, EDINBURGH We rose around nine or so and headed out into the mist again to do some more exploring. We grabbed a quick breakfast at Pret and then set up Monument hill. For some reason, the Scotts deiced to build everything on the one hill in town. I’m not complaining. The monuments were lovely and the view was even better. From the top of the hill, we saw Arthur’s Seat, the tallest peak for miles around. Doing what anyone should do on a muddy day we decided to hike up the dormant volcano. During the hike, I think I almost wiped out in the mud at least three times and nearly rolled my ankle, but we made it to the peak with pants still relatively clean. The views from the top were amazing. You could see the entire city and the harbor from up there. Thankfully it had even stopped raining during the hike too.
Luckily for us, we ran into a friendly Scotsman and his dog as we were wondering how to get down the mountain without completely killing ourselves on the muddy rocks. He showed us a grassy slope that ran the whole way down the mountain. After we scrambled down the mountainside we grabbed some fish and chips at a little café beside the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. We checked out the Scottish National Museum before going back to the hostel and slumped over in bed after all the hiking we had done.
MONDAY, LONDON Probably got up the earliest I’ve ever been up since I flew across the Atlantic. I threw a couple of things in my bag and then sprinted off to the bus stop with Montana. The coach took us to Stansted Airport which I found is in the middle of nowhere. Stansted serves as one of London’s major airports and is the primary budget airfield in the capital region. The funniest thing I found about the airport was that it’s basically just a giant mall with a couple of gates. Well, gates are a generous term. All the flights were tarmac boarding – something I’m actually starting to enjoy if I do say so myself. The flight was fine enough. The pilot did give me a few scares on the trip. I think Ryanair also hires budget pilots. But hey, the flight was 50 pounds round trip so I can’t complain too much.
EDINBURGH After we landed in Edinburgh we had another 45-minute bus ride into the city. After getting off the bus we then hiked 15 minutes though the hilly old town and climbed what felt like a hundred stairs until we ended up in the plaza where our hostel was. We dropped our bags and then set out around town. There was a nice rain/snow mix falling so we ducked into the Elephant Café, which just happens to be where J.K. Rowling wrote the first books of the Harry Potter series.
While we waited for a table we struck up a conversation with a few Americans. Two were a mother and daughter pair from Chicago. The daughter was studying abroad in Ireland and the mom had come over for a visit. The mom was a wee bit rude so we finished up our conversation rather quickly. The other American we met in line was a girl from Virginia who studies at USC (fake Carolina). Merriweather (and no I didn’t make a Lewis and Clark joke when she told us her name) was traveling alone across the continent. The three of us quickly struck up a decent conversation and decided to grab a table together. We chatted and drank coffee for the better part of an hour and a half before we set out again in the damp.
Seeking shelter from the weather, Montana and I went on a tour of some of the underground vaults in town. Their history is rather interesting and it’s easy to see how Edinburgh is supposedly one of the most haunted towns in Britain. There was even a Wiccan church and evil circle under the streets. As far as I’m aware, I wasn’t cursed during my time underground.
After charging our phones at the hostel, we met up again with Merriweather and headed to the World’s End, a little pub. While we waited at the bar for a table, we all struck up a conversation with an older couple from New York. They had two boys about Montana and I’s age. We chatted about your standard American abroad, study abroad fair. During the conversation, I almost was struck by falling glass from the bar that shattered around me. Maybe that curse stuff was more serious than I thought. Dinner was wonderful and I even got to sample some haggis which was actually stunningly delicious. As we called the waiter over for our check, he told us the couple we had been chatting with before had taken care of the bill. It was the nicest thing a pair of strangers has ever done for me and I didn’t even manage to get their names.
April has treated me well so far. I’m a lucky guy. Thanks again for all the birthday wishes. But now I have a few days of work ahead of me as I try to hunker down and work on yet another paper. I’m afraid you won’t be hearing from me next Sunday. I’ll be off somewhere on the continent for a week starting Friday. I’ll make sure to take a couple of pictures for you. So, I’ll see you next, next Sunday.